Friday, January 21, 2011

The Four Best Cultural References You Should Slip Into Conversation Today.

It's a SemiDaily List!

Over on Thinking The Lions, I managed to take XKCD's reference to the nearly-forgotten boardgame Risk and transfer it to my own reference to the nearly-forgotten poster "Building A Rainbow", and doing that got me thinking.

Specifically, what it got me thinking is "Why can't I do stuff like that for a living, make cultural references and dumb jokes rather than what I actually do for a living, which is sit down and draft up pages and pages of "Findings of Fact."? (Oh, and I also do these things, but those are rare interludes of ridiculousness that almost never overtake the tedium.)

Cultural references are all the rage, after all: They're quick ways to establish how hip you are (or how hip you were desperately trying to be in the few moments of fame you'd have before becoming an afterthought) and they can establish a connection with your fans almost instantly, along the lines of Hey, [that famous person] likes that thing that I, too, like!

Which is why guys like Tracy Morgan try to use cultural references: mired in a show that nobody watches -- I defy you to find me a single person who routinely watches 30 Rock and who isn't related to somebody on that show -- and generally remembered as "that one guy who's never funny," Morgan (and people like him) will latch on to cultural references to try to establish a link between them and the public.

The problem is that over the years, our cultural references have become narrower and narrower; our society is increasingly forgetting about all the things we've done in the past, and therefore forgetting that we can make references to all those things we've done in the past as a lazy/ironic way of commenting on those things we're doing now (or, in the alternative, as a lazy/ironic way of getting out of writing a script for this week's Family Guy episode.)

In fact, as our society has continued to evolve (assuming we're evolving, which is not a given, if you've looked at our society and/or Congress lately), we've become more and more narrow and regressive in how we express ourself and our view on culture and the references we use. For most of human history, our society was content to create new things: We came up with Magna Carta (whatever that is) and the French Revolution and pretended that manatees were mermaids and invented Beowulf and had Christopher Marlowe write all those plays under the nom de plume "Shakespeare" and things generally moved forward, culture-wise, for humanity (with a brief regression when we invented opera, but, luckily, most people immediately started to ignore opera with a ferocity that wouldn't be equaled until people ignored 30 Rock.)

After that burst of creativity, which I'll label, for convenience's sake "The entire course of human history prior to 1994," humanity then settled down and apparently decided not to make anything new, ever again, and to simply start remaking everything we'd ever made, only this time we'd put Owen Wilson in there.

That era, the Remake Era, lasted about 10 years, until the Internet really took off, and we entered the current era, which for convenience's sake I'll call The Current Era, and which is marked by humanity not bothering to remake all the old stuff anymore, but simply to mention it... or reference it, if you will.

So instead of having Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels, we nowadays simply make a reference to Charlie's Angels and call it a day (and, in the case of Seth MacFarlane, go cash our $10,000,000 weekly paycheck.)

Which would be fine, except that (a) it's not fine, because people who generally try to be creative keep getting shot down by people who point out to them that society doesn't want creativity anymore, we just want Snooki to rewrite one of those H Is For Hot detective novels that for a brief time were available at the grocery store checkouts back when people pretended that members of society read books, and (b) as we've gone on, our cultural references have gotten narrower and narrower until we reached the point we've reached now, which I will, for the sake of convenience, call Now, and that point is this:

Every cultural reference we make is, essentially, about Star Wars.

That Tracy Morgan link above highlights and demonstrates the problem, and the problem is that everything we say or do or think really seems to just be about Star Wars nowadays. That's become the one thing people relate everything else to, it seems, the one thing that we can mention and be sure that everyone will get the joke on -- and it's so ubiquitous nowadays that if you Google the phrase "talks about Star Wars" you'll get 56,100 results featuring people from Kevin Smith to Chris Lee to Seth Green talking about Star Wars. And if you investigate those links further, you'll see how bad it gets: There's a site, for example, called "Who Celebs Tweet" and that site has a skewed view of who a "celebrity" is, because it mentions a guy named "Chris Carrabba," a person I've never heard of but who apparently talks about Star Wars at least three times a week... so that site both proves the point I'm making here and the point I made here about celebrity being dead, and also made me wonder who Chris Carrabba was, or is. So I googled him, and found out that...

...he's the lead singer of something called Dashboard Confessional. And he's up to something, as shown by this cryptic tweet from December 14, 2010:
Mark it 8, dude.

No doubt that means something to Dashboard Confessional's fan.

The problem runs both deep and wide: for every Tracy Morgan clinging to relevance by making Star Wars jokes, there's a group of college kids trying to make Admiral Ackbar their school mascot. So how can we get out of the rut that modern day-discourse, as exemplified by Chris Carrabba, is stuck in?

Simple: As usual, I've risen to the task and come up with some new cultural references -- new in the sense that you haven't used them before, not new in the sense of, you know, being new -- for you to sprinkle into conversation, use as Tweets, headline the front page of the New York Times with, etc. and so on. And here they are, in no particular order. Even though I numbered them. The numbers simply show the order in which I typed them. So they're in numerical order, but that doesn't really signify anything. Don't get hung up on it.

Remember, the goal of these is to spice up conversation and mark common ground you have with those people around you -- while not requiring you to actually think creatively and/or konw anything about the subject. So you should sprinkle these into conversation and/or base a mash-up book on them, but under no circumstances should you use these to be creative. If you wanted to be creative, you should've lived before 1994.

1. "Thank you Jim, says Captain Me." This quote ends the poem Pirate Captain Jim, by Shel Silverstein, from the only book of poetry any American ever read all the way through, Where The Sidewalk Ends.

Use In Society: It's got multiple uses. You could use it to thank someone -- so when you go get your half-cup of soup with baguette at the local Panera, and they thank you, you could say, "No, thank you Jim, says Captain Me," which serves both to emphasize that you and the cashier have both read that book, and that you're secretly feeling superior to the cashier because he's just a cashier, while you have a Bachelor's in English and maybe you're between jobs but at least you're not punching buttons all day for $7.50 an hour.

You could also use it to end conversations with people at work -- making it especially useful for people who are bosses or who are just bossy and want to emphasize that they're in charge.

Special Hidden Meaning: Many of our cultural references to Star Wars are meant not just to convey the only common ground that we have with each other anymore -- that common ground being we've all seen the Star Wars movies -- but also to emphasize that we're kind of snarkily smart, too -- so we make inside jokes about it or claim that Darth Maul didn't really have to die or otherwise show that we not only know the material we're referencing, but we know it so well that we actually understand it a little better than the other person does. So references with a special hidden meaning are the best because we get to enjoy that meaning even if the other person doesn't get it.

And Captain Me has a special hidden meaning. If you remember the poem:

You'll remember that Captain Jim keeps trying to get the poet to do stuff, and the poet can't do anything he's asked, so he ends up being the captain, which seems smart because now he's in charge, but it's also a hidden insult to those in charge -- that they can't do anything, which is why they must be the leader.

So if you use Captain Me properly, you'll use it ironically and as a backhanded insult: When your boss tells you to do something, and you agree to do it because you have to -- that being the nature of a job -- and he/she says Thanks because he/she is trying to make it seem like he doesn't have you in his/her total control because you need that job, even if it is only working at Panera, then you can mutter, under your breath to your coworker, "Thank you Jim, Says Captain Me" as a way of demonstrating that you all know your boss is only Captain because he/she couldn't actually do anything productive.

2. Sluggo. Is Nancy still around? Ever since my call for a Black-Friday Themed Holiday Cartoon starring Nancy, I've been waiting for a wave of Nancy fever to sweep over the U.S., if not the world (and also for my royalty checks, as I'm sure that just coming up with an idea entitles me to some money, doesn't it?)

Assuming Nancy is still around, then it's high time that we started referencing that strip, and doing so in the best possible way: by referencing a supporting character in that strip, to show that we're really in the know about the strip. After all, all the best references to Star Wars don't talk about Luke and Han; they talk about IG-88. Because it's cool to know too much about an obscure topic.

Use In Society: The problem is, I don't really know anything about Sluggo. So I'd start with Just call people Sluggo. When someone at work makes a suggestion, like "Let's all order pizza today," you can say "Good idea, Sluggo," and everyone will laugh and shake their heads like they get it, because they'll be too afraid to say "Why'd you call Jim 'Sluggo?'" in case you give them a withering look and say "Get back to the cash register, that guy wants a half-cup of soup and a baguette."

Secret Hidden Meaning: Again, I'm hampered by the fact that I remember nothing about Sluggo. Which I guess makes him the perfect empty vessel for us to use in referencing. If I know nothing about him, then it's a safe bet that nobody knows anything about him. So you can call anyone Sluggo and have it work -- so those of us in the know will have this second level of meaning, in which we'll use Sluggo to actually mean an empty vessel which can serve almost any purpose.

Example: Those tea partiers are putting all their faith in John Boehner to actually do what they hope to do, but he's really just a Sluggo.

3. The stories and poems of Geoffrey Chaucer. This might seem like an odd choice for me to promote, given my well-known stance that The Canterbury Tales are dreck and should not be taught, so let me say this: I still think The Canterbury Tales are dreck and should not be taught. I'm not actually advocating reading anything by Chaucer. I'm advocating making references to Chaucer. And here's why: Among a certain subset of Star-Wars-references are those refernces which claim that Star Wars was actually based on, or related to, or otherwise had a connection to, the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Now, I don't know who Akira Kurosawa was or whether he was even a real person, and I doubt anyone else does, either. What I do know is that if you're going to have cultural references, a certain amount of those references must allow people to be elitist, and that's what the whole "Akira Kurosawa" thing does for Star Wars: it lets people pretend to be smart even though they're talking about pop culture. By making reference to a Japanese film maker (if that's who Kurosawa was, and if he existed), people get to feel as though they are smarter than you -- because you just liked the movies for Princess Leia's metal bikini, whereas they liked it because blah blah blah cinematography.

Use In Society: Whatever someone talks about, simply say "You know, that story/song/powerpoint presentation had its origins in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer." Let them prove you wrong. Nobody's ever read any of the stuff Chaucer wrote, and nobody ever will.

Secret Hidden Meaning: The secret hidden meaning is the use in society, as well -- the whole point is to pretend that you're smarter than someone else by bluffing them, and avoiding the fact that you've clicked on Leia's Metal Bikini picture 173 times that day alone.

4. Big Jim vs. The 6 Million Dollar Man:
Any good cultural reference will not just serve as a reminder that we all once saw that one thing, but will also spark what passes for intellectual debate in our current "society." Why spend our time actually discussing whether a country that can pay $44 million to a 22-year-old football player should be able to provide basic health care for children, when we can debate which was more of an affront to our sensibilities, Ewoks or Jar Jar?

The problem is, that debate's long since been settled: the whole thing doesn't matter, now get back to work. Which clearly isn't going to happen: We're not going to get back to work, or actually have debates about any issue beyond this:

Candidate 1: "I'm for creating jobs!"

Candidate 2: "But I'm more for creating jobs!"

Which doesn't get us any further than people laughing about Misa Sorry Mr Jedi. So if we're going to just keep going round and round about dumb topics, let's sub in a different dumb topic -- that of which 1970s' doll was actually a lamer toy to play with, the Big Jim dolls or the Six Million Dollar Man dolls?

Use In Society: Use it to distract people from ever, ever thinking. It's way more effective than Jobs or Blood Libel or Obama's War In Afghanistan, because it diverts people away from scary topics like "My god, who did we actually vote for and what's that bill they're trying to pass now" and onto things that are fun and meaningless. Whenever things get tense - -whenever your boss says "Where's that brief you were supposed to file by noon today only you spent your morning blogging?" or a reporter says "Do you think that by putting gunsights on pictures and using the word to reload you bear some responsibility for people then shooting the targets you told them to shoot?" you can just say:

"I bet you thought that magnifying eye was cooler than Big Jim's action jeep."

To which the person will likely say: "No way! The eye was dumb -- you had to stop what you were doing and hold the doll up to your head and even then it just made things look farther away, plus the Karate Chop action was lame," and you're off-topic and home free.

Secret Hidden Meaning: Both Big Jim and Steve Austin were dolls -- they were released before "action figures" became a common phrase. So if you get people to admit they played with them, you're subverting the standard gender roles, or something or other. Whatever. You get to feel superior.

Now get out there and start referencin', you bunch of Sluggos!

Update: The New York Post proves me right.

Update, 2: Justified commercial proves me right-er.

Update, 3: Bat-Wars, and Steeler Stormtroopers.

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